Ah, the dreaded cover letter. Every time you sit down to write one, you probably browse cover letter examples online, get overwhelmed, and think something to the effect of: Does anyone really read these? Wouldn’t it be so much easier if I could just let my resume speak for itself?
First off: Yes, we can assure you that cover letters do, in fact, get read. In fact, to some hiring managers, they’re the most important part of your job application. And yes, while it would be easier to let your resume speak for itself, if that was the case you’d completely miss the opportunity to tell prospective employers who you are, showcase why they should hire you, and stand out above all the other candidates.
Ready to dive in? To make sure your letter is in amazing shape (and crafting it is as painless as possible), we’ve brought the best advice on writing a cover letter into one place. Read on—then get to writing!
Cover Letter Basics
Write a Fresh Cover Letter for Each Job
Yes, it’s way faster and easier to take the cover letter you wrote for your last application, change the name of the company, and send it off. But most employers want to see that you’re truly excited about the specific position and company—which means creating a custom letter for each position you apply for.
While it’s OK to recycle a few strong sentences and phrases from one cover letter to the next, don’t even think about sending out a 100% generic letter. “Dear Hiring Manager, I am excited to apply to the open position at your company” is an immediate signal to recruiters and hiring managers that you’re resume-bombing every job listing in town. Mistakes like this can get your application tossed straight in the trash.
But Go Ahead, Use a Template
Getting Started Your Cover Letter Greeting and First Paragraph
Include the Hiring Manager’s Name
The most traditional way to address a cover letter is to use the person’s first and last name, including “Mr.” or “Ms.” (for example, “Dear Ms. Jane Smith” or just “Dear Ms. Smith”). If you know for sure that the company or industry is more casual, you can drop the title and last name (“Dear Jane”). And if you’re not 100% positive whether to use “Mr.” or “Ms.” based on the name and some Googling, definitely skip the title.
Never use generic salutations like “To Whom it May Concern” or “Dear Sir or Madam”—they’re stiff, archaic, and did we mention that cover letters need to be customized? If you can’t figure out the specific hiring manager’s name, try addressing your cover letter to the head of the department for the role you’re applying for. Or if you honestly can’t find a single real person to address your letter to, aim for something that’s still somewhat specific, like “Systems Engineer Hiring Manager” or “Account Executive Search Committee.”
Craft a Killer Opening Line
No need to lead with your name—the hiring manager can see it already on your resume. It’s good to mention the job you’re applying for (the hiring manager may be combing through candidates for half a dozen different jobs), and yes, you could go with something simple like, “I am excited to apply for [job] with [Company].” But consider introducing yourself with a snappy first sentence that highlights your excitement about the company you’re applying to, your passion for the work you do, or your past accomplishments.
The Main Event What to Put in the Body of Your Cover Letter
Go Beyond Your Resume
A super common pitfall many job seekers fall into is to use their cover letter to regurgitate what’s on their resume. Don’t simply repeat yourself: “I was in charge of identifying and re-engaging former clients.” Instead, expand on those bullet points to paint a fuller picture of your experiences and accomplishments, and show off why you’d be perfect for the job and the company.
For example: “By analyzing past client surveys, NPS scores, and KPIs, as well as simply picking up the phone, I was able to bring both a data-driven approach and a human touch to the task of re-engaging former clients.”
Having trouble figuring out how to do this? Try asking yourself these questions:
- What approach did you take to tackling one of the responsibilities you’ve mentioned on your resume?
- What details would you include if you were telling someone a (very short!) story about how you accomplished that bullet point?
- What about your personality, passion, or work ethic made you especially good at getting the job done?
Think Not What the Company Can Do for You
Another common cover letter mistake? Talking about how great the position would be for you and your resume. Frankly, hiring managers are aware of that—what they really want to know is what you’re going to bring to the position and company. Try to identify the company’s pain points—the problem or problems that they need the person they hire to solve. Then emphasize the skills and experience you have that make you the right person to solve them.
On that note…
Highlight the Right Experiences
Not sure what skills and experiences you should be featuring? Typically the most important requirements for the position will be listed first in the job description, or mentioned more than once. You’ll want to make sure you describe how you can deliver on those key priorities.
Another trick: Drop the text of the job description into a word cloud tool like WordClouds, and see what stands out. That’s what the hiring manager is looking for most.
Showcase Your Skills
When you know you have the potential to do the job—but your past experience doesn’t straightforwardly sell you as the perfect person for the position—try focusing on your skills instead. That skills-based template we mentioned before will help you do just that. (Psst: You can also take this approach with a skills-based resume.)
…Not Necessarily Your Education
Students writing cover letters for internships and new grads often make the mistake of over-focusing on their educational backgrounds. At the end of the day, what hiring managers care about most is your work experience (and yes, that can be volunteer or internship experience, too)—and what you can walk through the door and deliver on day one.
Don’t Apologize for Your Missing Experience
When you don’t meet all of the job requirements, it’s tempting to use lines like, “Despite my limited experience as a manager…” or “While I may not have direct experience in marketing…” But why apologize? Instead of drawing attention to your weaknesses, emphasize the strengths and transferable skills you do have.
Here’s what that might look like: “I’m excited to translate my experience in [what you’ve done in the past] to a position that’s more [what you’re hoping to do next].”
Throw in a Few Numbers
Hiring managers love to see stats—they show you’ve had a measurable impact on an organization or company you’ve worked for. That doesn’t mean you have to have doubled revenue at your last job. Did you bring in more clients than any of your peers? Put together an impressive number of events? Made a process at work 30% more efficient? Those numbers speak volumes about what you could bring to your next position, and make your cover letter stand out.
You don’t even have to have worked with numbers at all! Check out a few more tips for adding stats to those resume bullets, even if your previous jobs involved dealing with people, not figures.
Used sparingly, great feedback from former co-workers, managers, or clients can go a long way toward illustrating your passion or skills.
Here’s an example of how you might weave it in: “When I oversaw our last office move, my color-coded spreadsheets covering every minute detail of the logistics were legendary; my manager said I was so organized, she’d trust me to plan an expedition to Mars.”
Be Open to Other Formats
If you’re applying to a more traditional company, then the tried-and-true three-to-five-paragraph format probably makes sense. However, if you’re gunning for a more creative or startup job—or need to explain to the hiring manager, say, how your career has taken you from teaching to business development—a different approach could be appropriate.
Here at The Muse, we’ve seen cover letters use bullet points, tell stories, or showcase videos to (successfully) get their point across. One woman wrote a cover letter from her dog’s perspective. This professional even turned hers into a BuzzFeed-style list!
Finding Your Voice How to Strike the Right Tone
Cut the Formality
We know, you’re trying to be professional. But being excessively formal can actually backfire on you, career expert Mark Slack points out: “It makes you seem insincere and even robotic, not anything like the friendly, approachable, and awesome-to-work-with person you are.”
Even when you’re applying for a very corporate role, there’s usually room to express yourself in a conversational, genuine way.
Write in the Company’s “Voice”
Cover letters are a great way to show that you understand the environment and culture of the company and industry. Spending some time reading over the company website or stalking their social media before you get started can be a great way to get in the right mindset—you’ll get a sense for the company’s tone, language, and culture, which are all things you’ll want to mirror as you’re writing.
Go Easy on the Enthusiasm
We can’t tell you how many cover letters we’ve seen from people who are “absolutely thrilled for the opportunity” or “very excitedly applying!” Yes, you want to show personality, creativity, and excitement. But downplay the adverbs a bit, and just write like a normal person.
Don’t Let Your Fear of Bragging Get in the Way
If you tend to have a hard time writing about yourself, here’s a quick trick: What would your favorite boss, your best friend, or your mentor say about you? How would they sing your praises? Then write the letter from their point of view.
Finishing Touches Your Final Words (and Final Edits)
Keep it Short and Sweet
There are always exceptions to the rule, but in general, for resumes and cover letters alike, don’t go over a page. In one survey, more than two-thirds of employers said they preferred a cover letter that’s either just half a page (around 250 words) or “the shorter the better.”
Having trouble getting rid of your carefully crafted sentences? Check out these tips for cutting down your cover letter to a page or less.
It’s tempting to treat the final lines of your cover letter as a throwaway: “I look forward to hearing from you.” But your closing paragraph is your last chance to emphasize your enthusiasm for the company or how you’d be a great fit for the position.
For example, you could say: “I’m passionate about [Company]’s mission and would love to bring my [add your awesome skills here] to this position.” You can also use the end of your letter to add important details—like, say, the fact that you’re willing to relocate for the job. Check out more examples and a template here, and read about a few cover letter closing lines you definitely don’t want to use.
We shouldn’t have to tell you to run your cover letter through spell-check (you should!), but remember that having your computer scan for typos isn’t the same as editing. Set your letter aside for a day or even a few hours, and then read through it again with fresh eyes—you’ll probably notice some changes you want to make. You might even want to ask a friend or family member to give it a look.
If you need some extra help, you can check out how the wording sounds to others using Hemingway. Paste in your text, and the app will highlight sentences and sections that are too complex or wordy, use passive voice, or are overloaded with fancy vocabulary when simpler words will do. You don’t have to take all of its suggestions (maybe “facilitate” really is the best word choice there!), but it’s a handy way to check the readability of your letter.
Remember, one spelling or grammar mistake can be all it takes to turn off the hiring manager—especially if writing skills are an important part of the role you’re applying for.
Have Someone Gut Check It
Have a friend take a look at your cover letter, and ask him or her two questions: Does this sell me as the best person for the job? and Does it get you excited? If the answer to either is “no,” or even slight hesitation, go back for another pass.
Finally, read this if you’re looking to write a letter of intent instead of a cover letter—yes, there’s a difference.